Microsoft's Week Was Big on Bing, Possible Lawsuits

Microsoft saw quite a bit of legal and governmental action the week of Dec.14. In addition to resolving issues related to Internet Explorer and Windows with the European Commission, Microsoft also had to deal with a lawsuit over the name Bing, and faces another possible suit from a Taiwanese company after a third-party contractor reportedly plagiarized code for a MSN China microblogging application. Microsoft has declined to tell eWEEK how it internally vets code for its software, a question inspired by two incidences of code plagiarism by Microsoft subcontractors in November and December.

Microsoft and the European Commission, the law enforcement body of the European Union responsible for antitrust initiatives, wrapped up at least one part of their sometimes-contentious relationship this week. On Dec. 16, Microsoft agreed to install an automatic "ballot screen" that would let Windows users in Europe choose between 12 different browsers.

Over the summer, the commission had voiced concern that preinstalling Internet Explorer on Windows PCs could give Microsoft an unfair advantage in the browser market. Originally, Microsoft planned to counter by releasing a version of Windows 7 in Europe without Internet Explorer 8 preinstalled, which would have been known as Windows 7 E. However, Microsoft then suggested in August that it would install a ballot screen allowing choice between IE 8 and rival browsers.

Microsoft's rivals, including Opera Software, then asked the EC to make certain changes to the offer. Under the terms of the new agreement, the Windows 7 ballot screen will display 12 Web browsers that run on Windows, determined by usage share in the European Economic Area.

"Microsoft is also prohibited from circumventing free and effective browser choice by any contractual, technical or other means," Neelie Kroes, European commisioner for Competition Policy, said at a Dec. 16 news conference in Brussels. Microsoft will be required to report to the EC, first within six months and then annually, about its ballot-screen implementation.

Microsoft and the EC had battled before on a number of occasions; the EC fined Microsoft about $631 million in 2004 for allegedly monopolistic business practices. Kroes is due to step down in January, and will reportedly be replaced by Joachim Almunia, the former Socialist Party candidate for prime minister of Spain in 2000.

Microsoft also agreed to "allow interoperability between third-party products and several important Microsoft products," according to Kroes, who added in her remarks that, "The commission will carefully monitor the impact of Microsoft's proposals on the market and take its findings into account in its assessment of the pending antitrust investigation regarding interoperability."

Speaking of possible legal action, this week Microsoft also found itself in the crosshairs of a small Taiwanese tech company, Plurk, which alleged that the site layout and underlying code of its microblogging service had been largely stolen by Juku, a microblogging service developed for MSN China and launched as a beta in November.

Upon Juku's release, Taiwanese bloggers started posting about the similarities between it and Plurk, eventually igniting an investigation by Microsoft. There had indeed been plagiarism of code, Microsoft eventually announced, and the Juku beta would be suspended indefinitely.

"The vendor has now acknowledged that a portion of the code they provided was indeed copied," Microsoft said in a Dec. 15 statement posted on its Website. "This was in clear violation of the vendor's contract with the MSN China joint venture, and equally inconsistent with Microsoft's policies respecting intellectual property."

In the statement, Microsoft said it seeds its third-party developer contracts with "strong language" that "clearly states the company must provide work that does not infringe the intellectual property rights of others." Furthermore, Microsoft suggested it would re-examine its practices surrounding accepting application code from third-party developers.